The Point Man

“Holy Shit…there’s someone coming down the hill!”

It doesn’t matter what your war was: WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, or Iraq. If you’re walking point, you are the lead man, the man at greatest risk for surprise ambush or booby traps. You may be going house to house, clearing rooms, walking through hilly terrain, or three canopy jungle. My war was Vietnam from 1968 to 1969, the height of the conflict. There were more men in country during this period than at any other time, and there were more men killed in these years than at any other time. It would be interesting to know how many of those KIAs were point men, but those statistics are not available.

Most of the time, my platoon walked single file because the jungle was so dense that we were forced to follow animal trails or cut our way through “wait-a-minute vines.”  A few men liked walking point, and they were good at it. But to be fair, I rotated the task every day, and sometimes two or more times a day, depending on the terrain and the heat.

The point-and-cover men were in the most dangerous positions. They were also the ones who tripped the booby traps, stepped in punji pits (holes spiked with sharpened bamboo or nails and dipped in excrement) or were immediately taken down in the first blast of an ambush. They walked 25 to 50 meters in front of the rest of the platoon – slowly and cautiously – with weapons loaded and selector switches turned to full- automatic. They carried their M16s at the ready and could fire within a split second. These men experienced extreme stress and constant fear. Their lives depended on being alert and fast on the draw. In our AO (I Corps, jungle terrain near the Laotian border) there were no friendlies. It was a free fire zone. The rule was, “If something moves to your front – you shoot it – and worry about the consequences later.”

I was mistrustful of soldiers who were anxious to walk point. These men often were looking to make a kill or establish a reputation. They could be far too aggressive, and their actions could end up risking lives – the cover man and those who walked a short distance behind. I rarely allowed a man to volunteer to walk point. It was better to rotate the job so that each man took his turn.

The best men to walk point were the ones who had done a lot of deer and bird hunting. They had experience walking quietly and stealthily through the brush without making noise and without having to constantly look down to see where they were stepping. These men scanned the front, listened for noises, and checked for movement – anything out of the ordinary. It might be some brush that looked a little strange that was being used as camouflage – brush that was just a little too brown when compared with the rest of the foliage. It might be an unevenness in the soil that housed a spider hole or punji pit. While these men were incredibly good at walking point, keeping their eyes open and spotting Charlie before he saw them, they were also at greater risk of missing tripwires and booby traps laid right in front of them. The point man had to be alert to noises such as the click of a safety switch. Being alert to no noise was also important. If the birds weren’t chirping or monkeys weren’t screeching, this could be a sign of danger and possible ambush.

Point Man
Point Man – Original illustration by SOFREP.

Many of the men I lost were either wounded or killed by booby traps. The most common booby trap was an American hand grenade stolen from the ARVN or from a U. S. supply depot and used against us. The pin was pulled, and the grenade was inserted inside an American C-Ration can also left behind and anchored to a bush. The can kept the grenade handle (spoon) depressed. Then a thin green wire (also supplied by the U. S. Army) was attached to the grenade, run across the trail, and tied to another bush on the opposite side. The point man would cautiously walk down the trail looking to the front at 25-meter intervals. He might not see the thin green wire strung across his path. If the man’s boot caught the wire and pulled the grenade out of the can. The handle would pop, and the man had five seconds to recognize the sound and react. By the time he started to run and yell “grenade,” two to three seconds had passed. There might just be enough time to dive for cover if there was some. The kill radius of a hand grenade is between five and fifteen meters depending on many factors. If the point man and cover man were incredibly lucky, they might only suffer foot and leg wounds from the shrapnel fragments as they dove for cover. If there was cover nearby it might prevent the fragments from hitting vital body parts. However, if the point man did not hear or recognize the ping of the grenade spoon popping off, he was in big trouble. Sometimes, not realizing it, he stepped over the wire and the man following in line would trip the grenade. Booby traps were quick, quiet, and lethal.